tv U.S. Soldier Morale 1971-1973 CSPAN July 7, 2019 1:10pm-2:00pm EDT
tv. , a panel of historians examine the morale of u.s. soldiers in the final two years of the vietnam war. of aniscussion is part all-day day conference titled manpower and morale hosted by for the military at the university of kansas. >> i wanted to start by setting the stage. we hold this manpower morale after tet.
and that suggests titling it manpower and morale after tet rather than in vietnam, that something changed. after the 1968 tet offensive, the media documented a growing crisis, frequent stories of malaise, challenges to authority and reports of scandals and atrocities, the most infamous of which was the mai lai massacre. and internal military documents tell much the same story. so in thinking about what happened after the tet offensive, we are thinking about -- we suggested that things were different before 1968. as we start talking about post tet, i thought it would give you -- i thought i would give you a really quick picture of pre-tet. the most common claim that originated within the military and circulated through the press is that in vietnam the united states had fielded the best-trained, best-equipped, best-disciplined force in its
history, a force of very high morale. here is general westmoreland speaking in 1966, their performance is exceeding my expectations. i have the journalist peter arnett in 1966 saying, more out -- morale is remarkable he high. and here is a former combat historian from world war ii, insisting that if morale were bad we would know about it because journalists are sniffing and barking on the trail of poor stories about the army and military. but more than anything else, i wanted to point to the briefing given to the secretary of saigon in 1967, in which the claim was
without exception that morale was exceptionally high. the servicemen themselves have a sense of personal satisfaction. they have served their country well and had assisted in the noble task of assisting the vietnamese what you see is spin. -- no matter what the state of morale was. this language is way over-the-top no matter what the state of morale was. but when you look at information from the time, close to half a million u.s. troops in vietnam, the court-martial rate stayed at about 2.2 per thousand in vietnam, versus 2.7 north 3.0 -- 2.7 or 3.0 in the rest of the country. the estimated improperly that the use of marijuana was one in 2000. they found no evidence whatsoever of heroin use, there was no mention of racial conflict, there was no fragging, no mention of combat refusal or any mention of dissent. it is impossible to make claims like this post 1968 with or without spin. so there is certainly an internal as well as an extern a perception that something had changed.
so what we were asking here is -- what actually did happen during this period following the tet offensive? we begin with our first session, a roundtable moderated by a professor from chapman university. it will feature professor bill allison of georgia southern, professor carissa threat i've -- also of chapman university and professor emeritus jim wilbanks who was at the general staff college and is now happily living in texas. i will turn it over to the first session. >> good morning, thank you so much for coming. i want to thank beth for inviting us out. i also want to thank the center of military history for supporting this, as well as the center at ku. beth has already introduced this
amazing panel, i will let you read the bios as we get started. i think the best place to start is in 1971. in that summer, the "armed forces journal" publishes a scathing indictment of the armed forces, especially those in vietnam. it is called the collapse of the armed forces. you can tell by the title this is not an uplifting assessment. the author is a marine colonel. my sense is he is not very excited by what he sees and he is far from subtle in his claims. listen to what he said. the morale, discipline and and battle worthiness of the u.s. armed forces was lower and were -- worse than at anytime in the history of the united states. those posers at valley forge had a good, right?
the situation wasn't bad, it was really bad. social turbulence, pandemic drug addiction, race wars, sedition, civilian scapegoats, drafty recalcitrance, barracks theft, and common crime, and an armed forces distrusted, disliked, and often reviled by the public. jim, i will start with you since you are reviled. [laughter] but i do think this is a good place to start and jim, i do want to start with you. beth says we have a great opportunity in jim not just a veteran but a scholar. how did the army feel to you in 1971 and 1972, and was the colonel onto something, was he overstating his case? and have your views changed as you made the transition from
veteran to scholar and delved into this as a historian? >> i was commissioned in 1969, thought i was going to vietnam immediately, ended up in germany , arrived in january 1970. by 1970 one, if i told you i would -- i read the armed forces journal, i would be lying. i had no idea there was an armed forces journal in 1971. but i would have a hard time disagreeing with his major points. i was in the third infantry division, i arrived in the seventh army, that seemed to me as an unenlightened second lieutenant, an army in disarray. we were understrength. i had half the people i was supposed to have. i would submit that the army in europe was paying the price for
vietnam, and it manifested itself in a number of ways. not enough people, a large number of the troops we had were unmotivated, wanted to get out of the army and get as far away from it as possible, there were no funds for training or maintenance, the barracks were falling apart. at one point, in the unit i served half of our vehicles were in storage because we couldn't man them, couldn't fix them, and couldn't fuel them, we did not have the money. so it was disconcerting to go on our position on the german border to defend against the soviets and put up a little metal signs that said machine gunner. i had enough people to man the four tracks in my platoon, and that was it. the barracks were falling apart. junior ncos were coming from vietnam with less than a year to do. the best ones soldiered on, the worst ones putting their time so
they could get out. a lot of the senior ncos did not want to confront the troops. units were rife within discipline. high awol and desertion. drug use, high crime, racial strife, extreme drug abuse. things got so bad, i volunteered to go to vietnam to get out of seventh army europe. i arrived in vietnam in december 1971 to a different army. it was an army that only have four infantry battalions left out of a high of i think about 77, if i remember right. and that is not to say that the combat units haven't been fighting, because they have. if you track the time, the battle of hamburger hill in may 1969, the cambodian incursion, firebase ripcord. if you want to talk about morale, consider firebase ripcord, where a small unit was surrounded and outnumbered 10 to one.
six distinguished service crosses were awarded for the combat there. so the war continued. we did not go across the border on the ground but did support from the air and in the process lost 107 helicopters. so the war continued, the combat units, i think, felt a sense of purpose because they had to for their own salvation. but by the time i got there, there were fractures that were beginning to show, and whether it was to the extent that you mentioned or not, it is clear there were serious problems going on. firebase pace, firebase marianne, to mention a few incidents.
i won't go into the specifics, our other speakers will. recent scholarship suggests the colonel was overblown. i tend to agree with the major who said in 1971, vietnam has become a poison to the army, when they have to, u.s. troops fight and fight well. the central question is whether an army that has begun to wilt can manage to wilt just a little. i think that has been the thrust of what i found in my research, that combat units continued to fight, but increasingly began to ask yourself, who wants to be the last guy killed in vietnam if we are going home anyway? i will leave it at that for now. >> bill allison has done interesting work on military justice in vietnam. i wanted to ask you, did the cases being prosecuted by the judge advocate core suggest a problem here? you state in your book that military crimes were telling
indicators of the disintegration of the u.s. military forces in south vietnam. how did the cases being prosecuted by the jag core at this time relate to what was going on? bill: this dovetails with what jim just talked about. people were there doing their jobs, and doing them well, especially in the battle space. but outside of that, as 1969 went into 1970 and people were withdrawing, that sort of thing, and there's a lot of people in vietnam as we will find out later today, most people in vietnam don't have a gun in their hands. they are in rear areas. veterans in the audience will represent the nomenclature. but as things wind down, you
have a lot of people, a lot of money still there, a lot of materials still there, a lot of time on their hands, and vietnam was a good place to find trouble, because there was plenty of it. as far as military crimes, those the things we usually associate with awol, desertion, combat refusal, willful refusal, insubordination, things like that, assault and murder of a fellow soldier, usually involving rank which we tend to term as fragging, but there is also what jim mentioned from his experience in germany, drug use, both dealing and using. i like that. [laughter] very timely. [laughter] drug use, illicit activity, this
was the black market, misappropriation of military property, and then the colonel's article that was mentioned, soldier theft, in the barracks, wherever it is, this is going on in the united states, but it is also going on in vietnam. and then, the assault and murder of vietnamese civilians. yeah, combat situations, which you would classify as atrocities or war crimes, but also in relation to black market activities, currency fraud and things like that. the last thing i want to do is hit you with a bunch of data first thing in the morning, but beth opened the door. [laughter] bill: she mentioned court-martial's and things like that before tet. and this is just for the army in
vietnam because it was the easiest numbers to pull out. 1968 for insubordination, willful refusal, basically mutiny, 94 cases are tried, 82 convictions. 128 tried and 117 convictions in 1969. in 1970, 152 tried, 131 convictions. you can safely double that for the ones investigated who don't go to trial, perhaps even more. desertion rates, awol rates, 1966, awol 57.2 per thousand, desertion 14.7 per thousand. this is in the army in vietnam. 1969, awol, 112 per 1000, desertion, 42. 1971, 176 per 1000, desertion, 73 per 1000. fragging, 1969, 126 incidents, 37 deaths. 1971, 333 incidents, 12 deaths, which brings interesting concepts about the point and purpose of fragging.
>> or the effectiveness. bill: or the effectiveness. nonjudicial punishments, article 15's. some of you may be familiar with those. article 15's are things for minor offenses, and in my research i found a lot of times it was probably something that warranted a special summary, but we don't have time, we don't want to do the paperwork, it is easier to take care of it this way with an article 15. this is just for the army. in 1967, 46,000. 1968, 59,000, 1969, 4000. in 1971, 40 1000 article 15's.
numbers don't lie much. that tells me there is a problem. is it a problem in the battle space? i don't think so. it's a problem of not being in the battle space and having too much time on your hands. and this was affecting all the services in vietnam. i will stop there. >> one thing that is interesting is heinel's view on race. if you listen to him talking about racial conflict in his article, he talks about how they are being sparked by young, black, enlisted men and get this, that white soldiers were more afraid of getting mugged by blacks after dark than being attacked by the enemy. african-american voices in particular are completely absent from this conversation.
how are race relations home and abroad on this conversation after tet? >> it is hard to generalize that. one of the things we need to be thinking about is that what is happening at home among african-americans and in the civil rights movement is that there is a fracturing of the movement in the late 1916 and -- 1960's and that fracturing reflects what is happening in vietnam among soldiers. you see older, mainstream, conservative organizations in the united states like the naacp, urban league, who are hesitant in 1966 and 1967 to speak out against vietnam and
johnson for that matter. the same thing is happening for soldiers in vietnam. soldiers who had been there for many years are touting a lot of the details beth started us out with, that the army was a place where they could go far and learn a lot of things. but at the same time, there was a generation at home and the draftees in the 1960's are young, maybe first time in the military, who are really disillusioned by problems they see in duty assignments, treatment of whether they are going to get an article 15, and that is reflected also at home, where you have a young generation of activists, people like john lewis who are people in corps or sncc, and speak out early against vietnam. by 1969, that perspective has changed across the board.
martin luther king really spoke out against the war. you see it followed by whitney young of the urban league, who starts to get sense that participation in vietnam has not been good for african-americans. that then reflects post-tet what is happening with a larger group of african-american soldiers, which is that they are more angry and upset and disillusioned by their experiences in vietnam and amongst fellow soldiers. that anger and disillusionment
then transfers into rioting, radical behavior, more so then we saw pre-tet. so there is certainly a shift after tet, but i think that shift reflect larger things happening in the african-american community at home. not a fracturing of the mainstream movement, but a stronger stance against the hope many held dear in the mid 60's of civil rights legislation, making things all right. by 1968, even johnson's great society has kind of failed them. >> it is interesting. chris and i were talking and there's actually a "time" article -- a new york times article in 1969, and you're starting to see these relationships between what is going on at home and the war in vietnam.
i would open it to the entire panel using that as a segue. senior officers in the military after tet talked about this permissiveness in american society that was seeping into the armed forces. that was a main cause of the morale and discipline problem. i wanted to get all of you, how much of this permissive society was at the root of problems in the armed forces after tet? [laughter] >> i was an advisor with an infantry battalion. i was around very few americans most of the time i was in
vietnam. but since i have done quite a bit of research, i don't know if it is permissiveness or not, but after nixon announces we will pull out the first troops in august of 1969 and in 15 more increments thereafter, increasingly, particularly in combat units because that is what i know most, the question was, is this necessary? do we really need to do this? at the bottom of the firebase case incident was the fact the captain was asking them to patrol an area that had claymore mines in it from a previous unit. so the question becomes, is that the smart thing to do? so is that a mutiny or is that,
let's not do something stupid? increasingly, the troops begin to question orders, and in some cases they ought to be questions. i'm not sure that answers your question completely, but that is my perspective. >> the big question is, what he means by permissiveness. i would question the term permissiveness. doesn't mean we let the soldiers do what they want to do? or are they pushing back against things they don't agree with, that don't make a lot of sense after nixon decided that the drawdown is going to happen? >> is down excuse to say, look, there are fundamental problems here with trying to reconcile asking you to sacrifice for a war from which we are clearly withdrawing and soldiers logically questioning orders
like you just mentioned. >> i wouldn't put a permissiveness label on it. people begin to question what is the sanity of conducting this mission today one we are going to get on a plane in three weeks and go home? you have to make a better case for whatever the operation may be. i think some of the senior officers wanted to give in order. that is what was traditionally done. >> some people point to the militant group of african-americans, although it is much law in reality, i think permissiveness might reflect that a lot of african-americans, even if they don't subscribe to something like black power or promote black power, are starting to understand that the military for them was not the place they thought they were going to make such big strides. it had been promoted as a place to highlight pushing for rights
at home, and by 1971, it certainly wasn't that place any longer for many, not all, but for many. that is the pushback. why am i here, fighting for this, when i am still dealing with a whole host of inequality, even after the 1964 and 1965 civil rights legislation had passed, and the 1968 legislation had passed, why am i still here doing this when my family still cannot live, basically? >> one thing important to remember is who these senior leaders were. they are world war ii veterans, korea veterans, they are lifers. to a degree, i think they see the problems they want to see, of what is happening.
and that lends clouds like it does for everybody, that experience clouds how you see things. it must have been unbelievably jarring for those officers to see what was happening, and also to be stuck in a war that was at the point that it was compared to their previous experience. that is kind of hard to get a handle on, i think. and there is a sense of failed expectations here more generally, that this is not the experience that i wanted it to be. if you read earlier memoirs like "born on the fourth of july," there's an expectation i'm going to fulfill my patriotic duty and
become a man, and those expectations are at a time when young draftees and senior leaders are both seeing those expectations not come to realization. so if it is not fully about the permissiveness of society or problems in american society, how much did the policy of actual withdrawal from vietnam affect morale? jim, you mentioned many americans on the ground didn't want to sacrifice their lives and be the last ones killed in a war from which we were leaving. how much of that policy of withdrawal was having an impact on morale and discipline? lieutenant willbanks: it has a tremendous impact. if you're seeing people go home, you begin to ask yourself, what are we doing here? if this war is over and it's clear at this juncture that it's
on a downward spiral, why conduct that operation tomorrow? that being said, when there was contact made with the enemy, the u.s. forces equipped themselves very well. they felt when they had to. but the question was, should we be fighting? i have read lots of men was from guys that were there before me, because when i got there there were four infantry battalions and about 7000 people still in the field, and they were all advisors. so it was a way different army and a way different vietnam by the time i got there than it was say, in 1965. but you don't see that ambivalence in 1965. that is a different army.
by 1970, that army is decidedly different. it is beginning to ask some questions as they see people getting on the freedom birds and going home, why are we still doing combat operations? and then laird comes out and says, now we are in a defensive mode. well, it doesn't feel defensive when you are running a patrol against the 33rd regiment. i think that had an impact on morale. >> the less combat there is, there are people in rear areas, and they got time on their hands. if you just look at the black market numbers, they skyrocket in 1970. everyone, not everyone, is
trying to get their take before this thing is over. but there is still a lot of people doing what they are supposed to be doing and they are not involved in these illicit activities at all, but they see them being allowed to continue and they are involving officers, ncos, enlisted, all ranks. that has got to affect your morale, it has got to make you ask questions about what it is that we are doing here. but you can find that situation in almost any conflict, especially as it winds down. certainly in world war ii, and i would wager there was something similar going on more recently. there is an interesting racial component in this and the relationship between the u.s. and the vietnamese. one soldier was quoted in newsweek in 1970 and he said, it has been almost a full year since the withdrawal was begun, let's all go home now, i don't want to be killed buying time
for the gooks. so there is this sense of racism inherent in the vietnam process and i wonder if that had an impact on morality. it's not that i am just leaving, it is that i'm turning it over to the vietnamese and if it hasn't gone well, it hasn't gone well because of them, so there is blaming going on, americans placing blame on the vietnamese. is that part of this, or is it just more general because they were withdrawing? the morality inherently is going to drop? >> i think it is both. there has got to be a little bit about the bet. where is the memorial, jim, you were showing us? >> westminster. the american g.i. in the south vietnamese, standing together but facing in different directions, and the american g.i. clearly standing down from an active role. >> it's in westminster, california, little saigon, the
american soldier has his helmet in his hand, i think the american has his rifle over his shoulder, the other has it in his hand, clearly suggesting something. >> and in the context of that memorial, not trying to say that message. but as an outside observer you can read volumes in it. >> i think it is both. >> i have talked to very few american veterans who thought american units had something good to say about the army. i think some of that was, is it worth dying for these people who won't fight for themselves? that's a perspective that comes from a lack of familiarity. i saw that the arben, some were good, some were bad, just like american soldiers.
i think that has an impact. the war is over, do i really want to be the last man to die in vietnam, or the south been in these? we have been fighting their war and so now it is time for them to fight. they had been fighting since 1956 off and on. that anti-vietnamese feeling has a part to play here in terms of morale.
with us withdrawing and still conducting operations in the field. >> more so the question of racism. certainly, the word gook suggests racism. but there is an anti-vietnamese feeling that affects more alice -- morale in general. >> we did our part that the vietnamese didn't do theirs is unfair is very much prevalent. what about senior leaders? how did they perceive what was going on? were they different from the soldiers in the field or were they similar? was there some generational component because you alluded to this earlier that to those that had experience in world war ii or korea, or the lexicon of the day between lifers and draftees, did you get a sense there was a
different understanding of these problems, whether you were in a higher leadership position or in the field dealing with it? >> senior leaders not only vietnam, but back in washington. a good example, mai lai scared the hell out of them. it really did. especially when calley's trial was going on, this concern that there could be 1000 other calleys, whatever. you can understand their concern, that perception and immediate reaction to that. clearly, the data doesn't support that. the fine book, "not a gentlemen's war," he refutes the concept of the dumb lieutenant,
that sort of thing. from a manpower perspective, personnel perspective and from an officer training perspective and manpower perspective, that got their attention. now how that played among the lower ranks, the people still out there, i am not sure. >> westmoreland commissioned a professionalism study that is run by the american war college in 1970, i believe. >> i highlighted this in my opening comments. in terms of morale, there is a different perspective between officers and ncos. they tend to be conservative, have longer careers, are concerned about morale but in a different way than people entering the military the first time out in the late 1960's and early 1970's. and they tend to err on the side of being supportive and trying to figure out how to make the
situation better and improve morale, not necessarily acknowledging there is a huge morale problem, but how do we deal with this to improve overall effectiveness? i think that relates to what is happening in the civilian world amongst older generation african-americans who are coming from a different generation, who may have been dealing with world war ii or korea, who have a very different perspective. >> the idea that the officer was a hotline to your commander or the commander of the post, that has got to say something that they were trying whatever they could to open lines of communication, literally, but also in a military organization, that seems unfathomable to a large degree. >> i think in terms of the reference the troops and senior officers are on different planets. the troops are going to ask
russians. that particular generation is going to ask questions. why go on that patrol through that area? to guys like westmoreland, you give an order and people respond. the idea that you would say, is this a good idea, maybe there is another way to do it, i think the lieutenants and ncos and company commanders learned how to deal with that environment, but the senior officers are on another planet. they have no frame of reference. it is anathema to them anyone would question an order at any time for any reason. but that is a different army than the army that they grew up in.
>> was there a crisis? there is new scholarship that suggests maybe there wasn't, and yet this collective memory persists that there was a major problem. was there in fact a crisis in the armed forces after tet? >> yes. [laughter] lt. wilbanks: good answer, bill. >> and clearly we are debating the degrees of the reality of that crisis versus its perception. i know there are a couple of lawyers in the room. perception, like possession, is 9/10 of the law. and perception matters. when you had those brig riots at long bend and the marine brig riots at okinawa, senior officers didn't have a clue what to make of those things and why
those things happened, what was going on, it was unparalleled in their experience that you would have things like that. there are just too many indicators. yes, we may have made more of it through popular cultural -- popular culture post-vietnam, looking out all of this, but they certainly believed it at the time, and i think at all levels they saw it at the time. i think that matters. >> in terms of racial tensions, we can look at these brig riots, not only in vietnam and okinawa, but in germany, a racial incident at fort mccall in alabama. i think they were recognizing there were ongoing racial tensions that needed to be dealt with.
in various ways, the military tried to deal with it in the late 1970's and early 1980's. lt. wilbanks: there was a problem. we can argue about the degree certainly, and i am covered by might experience in europe, and there were desperate problems there, desperate problems. as someone who had six people in jail for major felony offenses in my platoon, and out of 18 people, those are not good percentages. i had less anecdotal evidence of that in vietnam, but i was aware of it, because by the time i got there were 125,000 troops. you can do the math. there were four infantry battalions left, some aviation units and about 7000 advisors. everybody else was on camera and they, long bend, all of the big basis and as you point out, lots of time, lots of money, not much to do, and there were all kinds of opportunities to get in trouble and inflame racial
tension and all the other things. and certainly the ready access to drugs. i know the recent scholarship suggests the drug problem wasn't that bad. i don't believe it, at least in my experience. it was extremely bad. and that was even on the advisory team. there was evidence there i could go into but won't. so i think there was a problem. and whether that is all that heinl describes, and some of his word choices were unfortunate, but yes, definite yes. >> it is important to note that the fact that jim had six of 18 soldiers in jail doesn't say anything about his leadership. i just want point that out. [laughter] our last question before i would like to turn it over to engage of the panel -- we seem to be in
agreement that there was at least a problem, if not a crisis. how much of these problems you have identified -- how much did these problems have an impact and affect the ongoing war and whether americans achieved "victory" in south vietnam? did this have an impact in terms of the result americans saw coming out of south vietnam? >> it is kind of a chicken or the egg thing. yes, there were problems before we decided that we weren't going to win. but once that decision is made and it trickles down, like jim says, who wants to be the last person to die for a mistake? so, i don't know. it is hard to pinpoint one of -- one or the other as the cause,
pre-existing versus the situation but they both certainly feed off of each other, pretty intently, i think. lieutenant colonel wilbanks: certainly there is a cause there, but not the determinant cause. i think the determinant cause was that we were going to with rob regardless. if you look at the announcement in june 1969 about the withdrawal at the night the vision brigade leaves in august, it was always predicated on what was going on in the battlefield, how we were doing, and what the enemy was doing. once those things started, it was as kissinger so aptly put, perhaps unfortunate for him when it became public later, it was like eating salted peanuts. once you did one, you had to announce the next one and it became irrelevant what happened on the battlefield. so when the easter offensive was
over and the south vietnamese prevailed with massive amounts of u.s. air power, nixon had his opportunity to declare victory and go home. whether morale had anything to do with that decision, that's certainly questionable. in my mind, the decision ought to be made regardless of morale and other issues and problems. and once we are gone, it is the arben's problem. >> do you want the last word? >> any questions from the audience? >> i have a, engines, it. he talked about the difference in the perception between senior leaders and the troops. it was emphasized because he said the troops perception is they are the platoon.
>> thank you all for your time this morning. i am sure the panel will be one happy to take your questions. i appreciate the conversation and look forward to spending the rest of the day with you. [laughter] [applause] tvouncer: american history is on c-span3 every weekend and on our website at c-span.org/history. you can watch lectures and college classes, tours of historic sites, archival films, and see our schedule of upcoming
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